News - Running on Gratitude: Double Thanks for Cross-Country, Grace and Coach P

Running on Gratitude: Double Thanks for Cross-Country, Grace and Coach P

By Carla Morris

The little grace appears like clockwork once each year in the middle of life’s wall-to-wall bustle. The phone rings and a familiar voice sings “Happy Birthday” to Michelle (Sutton ’10) Wolfe.

It’s Brian Patton on the other end—Coach P, guide to Michelle and her sister Jennifer (Sutton ’10) Oyler on their shared journey as cross-country runners.Michelle_Jen-Panther5K

Patton’s greeting is just the latest installment in a ribbon of expressed care that has spanned more than a decade as the girls put Panther track behind them and moved on to embrace graduate school, families and careers. 

“[Coach] taught me to love God, be confident and remain resilient,” says Jen today. “He is a fundamental part of my success story.”

That story entails a broken home and the struggles of a single mother to raise Jen, Michelle and two other children. “We endured poverty and abuse,” recalls Jen.

Today, the sisters hold master’s degrees in biology and are nearing the end of the demanding clinical portion of their training as physicians’ assistants at St. Louis University. They’re familiar faces each Homecoming at Greenville University’s Panther 5K and treasure fond memories of the sport that changed their lives.

The Gift of Speed X2

As high school athletes in Jackson, Michigan, the sisters dabbled in basketball and wxc-sutton_jsoccer. But when they gave running a shot at the urging of a classmate, it was like unwrapping a gift.

“Running was our hidden talent,” remembers Jen.

The advantage of a built-in training partner, plus a strong work ethic, brought out the best in that gift.

The sisters ran indoor track during the winter and outdoor track during the spring. By the time Greenville’s Coach P put on his recruiter’s cap and gave them a call, the chance to keep running appealed to them.


“While at Greenville, that passion continued to grow and has molded me into the person I am today thanks to God, family, my husband, teammates and coach P,” says Jen.

(Pictured, the sisters during their Panther cross-country days, Jen, above and Michelle, below)

The Profound Impact of “Coach”

This fall marks the fifth anniversary of Greenville University’s master’s in coaching program where coaches learn to develop skills, character and faith—the same approach that helped Michelle and Jen thrive.

The sisters’ stories reveal seven areas of impact that drew out their best effort.

Value the person – As a recruiter, Coach Patton listened to one sister and then the other, learning from each about her races and individual perspective. Jen recalls that other recruiters “did not have the time or take the time” to converse with each sister; for them, one twin’s response sufficed for both.

Participation from the start – When the girls previewed campus, Patton invited them to practice with the team. Jen observed the team dynamic; she liked what she saw and experienced. She welcomed the spiritual dimension. “I was instantly at peace with this visit; I knew I wanted to run for a team that valued God.”

Frequent face-to-face engagement – “As an athlete you would always see Coach running all over the cross-country course or track to cheer for you and tell you your splits,” recalls Michelle. “Coach P helped me grow in my confidence as a runner through his pep talks and advice.”

The “whole” athlete – Coach P made sure his athletes succeeded in the classroom by requiring their participation in twice-weekly study sessions. “He cared about academics,” says Michelle, “and made sure his athletes’ grades were up to par.”

Faith disciplines as a team – Each week, Coach P led the team in devotions, and each day, he invited them to share prayer requests. Together, they’d “circle up” with arms crossed over teammates’ arms for prayer.

Instilled confidence – Jen recalls that her first cross-country camp as a Panther blended training with service and sharing her faith. It took place in Mexico. “We stayed at an orphanage, where we helped with the maintenance of their facilities and also trained. Coach Patton had given everyone on the team a shirt that had ‘DDW’ in bold letters on the back. I had no clue what it stood for until he told us: ‘Don’t Die Wondering.’ This was a powerful message to wear on a shirt, because these letters sparked the interest of people, and then they’d ask, ‘What does DDW stand for?’ . . . I was proud to share my testimony and faith.”

Role model – To Jen and Michelle, Coach P exemplified a godly man. “My biological father left when I was five years old,” recalls Jen. “He was in and out of our lives . . . My stepfathers were also poor examples.” This makes Patton’s continued involvement in their lives all the more meaningful.

Coach P has no daughters, but he has given two brides away on their respective wedding days. Michelle describes it as yet another grace:

“God blessed us through the sport of running with a church family, great teammates, many friends, my husband Alex and a father figure, Coach Patton.”

Learn More

To learn more about developing skills, character and faith as a coach, contact Shannon Bernico,, or call 618-664-6751.

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This story was published on October 02, 2017

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